For many, time stood still for a moment on January 26, 1983. It was the day the college football world lost its winningest coach. University of Alabama head football coach Paul William “Bear” Bryant died from a heart attack and people began to mourn the loss of a beloved icon.
The significance of his death was probably more apparent in the South. Unless you were born and raised there, it was hard to understand the fans and their obsessions with college football. It was, and still is, a place where they talk about their team 365 days out of the year. To say that college football was king would be an understatement.
This was the biggest story to hit Alabama in some time. Coach Bryant was considered one of the most powerful people in the state.
Weeks earlier, Coach Bryant had officially retired from the game. The towering figure felt it was the right time to step down and that it would be best for the team.
While he was a head coach at Maryland, Kentucky and Texas A&M, Coach Bryant is best known for his time at Alabama. He played for the Crimson Tide in the 1930’s and was part of a national championship team. He returned to his alma mater in 1958 as head coach. He was there for 25 years and led them to six national championships and thirteen conference championships.
Local and national media geared up for coverage of Bryant’s funeral. There would be wall-to-wall coverage from the First Methodist Church in Tuscaloosa to his final resting place at Elmwood Cemetery. Every available reporter, including my boyfriend, Brian, would be on the story.
The day of the funeral, Brian was told he was going live on television for fifteen minutes. That was unheard of at the time. He also was their investigative news reporter. Before that, he was a tennis writer and frankly he knew nothing about college football.
Covering a story of this magnitude, with little to no time to prepare, seemed like an impossibility. Google didn’t even exist.
Brian was always great at getting the story but this one was proving to be a little more difficult.
Brian was born in the South. When he was a young kid, his family moved to Connecticut, so he grew up around pro football. His father was a huge Green Bay Packers fan, especially during the Bart Starr and Vince Lombardi days. Of course, being a short distance from the largest media market, he always heard about Joe Namath, the New York Jets and their cross-town rivals, the New York Giants. An added perk was getting to see the Giants practice at the university across the street from his house. He saw football greats such as Fran Tarkenton, Spider Lockhart and Tucker Frederickson. When he was in elementary school, he even sent a letter to head coach Alex Webster applying to be the water boy. Coach Webster responded and much to his disappointment, he found out that the Giants would be moving to New Jersey the next year. He was too young to break that story.
The first time Brian saw and heard Coach Bryant was while watching “The Bear Bryant Show” on Birmingham TV. He wasn’t accustomed to Bryant’s way of talking, which he considered mumbling. To the fans and players, they heard him loud and clear.
In this pre-Google era, his only research option was the Encyclopedia Britannica that was used as a backdrop for a weekday morning TV show. But that wasn’t much help, either.
Then it dawned on him that the one source that could solve it all was right in front of him. It was me, his girlfriend. I had worked in the sports department at the station. I also knew everything there was to know about Coach Bryant and Alabama football.
So we went to work. I began by giving him some background information on Coach Bryant. I told him about his early life, his playing days at Alabama and his coaching career and record.
The live shot went smoothly but he still had to shoot some stories for the 5, 6 and 10 o’clock newscasts. As people entered the cemetery, I pointed out all of the dignitaries, current and former players and college coaches that were there in attendance.
There are so many things that stood out that day. As the day was winding down, a couple with a baby came up to Brian and asked if they could take a picture with him. It just so happened that there was a floral funeral spray in the shape of houndstooth hat and that’s where the picture was taken.
I must have impressed Brian that day. He proposed in the spring and we got married the week before Alabama’s football season started.
Many years have passed since Coach Bryant’s death. The image of him on the sidelines or leaning against the goal post wearing that famous houndstooth hat is beginning to fade.
Although Alabama has gone on to enjoy more success, the impact Coach Bryant had at Alabama on and off the field is still evident. He helped to build The University of Alabama into what it is today. His legacy can be seen through his players as well. The most valuable lesson he taught them was about life.
In honor of the man and one of the greatest college football coaches, here’s a hat tip to a job well done.
Post by Scrawl Drawl Guest